Diving into DevOps

DevOps: The Novel (and More)

In this first edition of John Waters' new "Diving into DevOps" column, he talks with DevOps Guru Gene Kim why he and his co-writers took a different approach with writing "The Phoenix Project," and a bit on the evolution of DevOps since then.

If you want to explain a management practice or process in detail, write a book; if you want to put a reader into a manager's shoes and walk him or her through the experience of meeting a mission-critical challenge with that practice or process, write a novel. That's more or less what Gene Kim, George Spafford, and Kevin Behr had in mind when they sat down to write The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win.

"Cognitive scientists have known for years that story telling is the most effective method for convincing someone of a point of view," Kim told me. "We wanted to convince developers and operations people -- who were on different sides of a process and found each other so frustrating -- that they needed to work together."

The story is told from the point of view of Bill Palmer, the new VP of IT Operations at Parts Unlimited, an auto parts company. Palmer is put in charge of the Phoenix Project, which is massively over budget and very late. The boss gives him 90 days to fix the mess or Palmer's entire department will be outsourced. The clock is ticking as Palmer tackles the project with the help of Erik, a kind of IT and manufacturing guru, who shows him that IT has more in common with manufacturing than he ever imagined.

The Phoenix Project is closely modeled on an earlier work: the 1992 novel, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, by Eliyahu M. Goldratt.

"I'd never worked on a plant floor or in plant management," Kim said, "but The Goal really put me there. We thought, what a great way to talk about IT operations. Anyone who has read that book will definitely see the similarities with ours."

Kim, Behr and Spafford have been following the practices that have come to be called DevOps almost before Patrick Debois and Andrew Clay Shafer coined the term in 2009. Kim is a full-time researcher focused on high-performing IT organizations, and the former CTO of security firm Tripwire. Behr is the founder of the Information Technology Process Institute and president and chief improvement scientist at Assemblage Pointe, which he also founded. Spafford is a research director at Gartner, for which he covers DevOps and technical change and release management. The three also co-authored an earlier book: The Visible Ops Handbook: Implementing ITIL in 4 Practical and Auditable Steps.

The Phoenix Project was published in 2013, and the book is now mandatory reading for some management teams. But the DevOps space has been a lively one in those three years. I wondered if Kim's original definition had evolved in that time.

"The emergence of DevOps was a big ah-ha moment for me," he said. "This was the missing link, the model and verbiage we'd been looking for to explain why Dev needs Ops as much as Ops needs Dev. That hasn't changed, but I think my current definition is a bit clearer than the one we put into the book."

That definition: "It's the set of technical practices, cultural norms, and architecture required to get fast flow from Dev into Ops and then to the customer, while preserving world-class reliability, security, and stability," he said. "But I think the outcomes should also be part of that definition. The process should get you to production quickly, safely, and securely, in minutes versus months. And to make it work you need automated testing, loosely couple architecture, proactive production telemetry, and high-trust culture."

The definition may be clearer, but the work of evangelizing DevOps isn't finished, Kim hastened to add. Although surveys such as the annual "State of DevOps" report show that companies like Amazon, Netflix, and Google are embracing DevOps with great results, the trillions of dollars of economic value he believes the high performance these practices yield will come from "every industry vertical and government agency."

"IDC says that there are eight million developers on the planet and eight million operations people," he said. "The majority of them are not working at Amazon or Netflix. So the mission at hand is to make every Dev and Ops person as productive as if they were at an Amazon or Netflix."

Over the past five-plus years, Kim has been working on another book project: The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations, which is set for publication on October 7. The co-authors include Jez Humble, co-author of Continuous Delivery and Lean Enterprise, Docker evangelist John Willis, and Debois, who is often called the Godfather of DevOps.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of Converge360.com sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].